Tech in the Rural Classroom Part 1: A Closer Look at One-Laptop-per-Child

Updated: Wayan looked over this post and added some important clarifications in the comments below -- be sure to check those out.

Last week I had the opportunity to hear from Wayan Vota, a technologist and founder of the blog OLPC News, which is dedicated to tracking the progress of the the One-Laptop-per-Child (OLPC) program. Founded in 2005 by Nicholas Negroponte, OLPC’s ambitious mission is to deliver durable $100 laptops to children around the world to improve their education.

OLPC must be commended for a couple of reasons. First, its noble intentions to reach the word’s rural and poor using 21st-century innovation reflects the critical influence that ICT’s have on development. Modern technologies have been deployed in developing regions throughout the world in an effort to raise educational quality for children, as this useful review of ICT’s in education by the World Bank’s infoDev initiative neatly summarizes.

Second, OLPC’s affordable, portable, and efficient design inadvertently spawned a miniature technological revolution by catalyzing the tablet PC industry. As Vota explained during his lecture, the OLPC laptops needed tiny, high-powered processors and efficient, long-life batteries. The technologies developed out of OLPC are now being used and improved upon by all players of today’s tablet PC revolution. Pointing to his iPad, Vota succinctly told us, “Without OLPC, we’d still be years behind that.”

Lastly, armed with what many officials concerned with international development view as a sexy and simple answer to their problem, Negroponte has delivered the goods. His program has managed to implement several programs throughout many developing countries, including Rwanda, India, and Paraguay, with nearly two million units delivered since 2005. Although the impact of OLPC in education remains hazy at best, there’s no denying that Negroponte has scaled the program to an impressive and meaningful level.

Still, Vota offered several reasons to be skeptical before jumping aboard the OLPC train:

Costs: The “$100 laptop” never really reached $100 and hovers around $188 plus shipping in a bulk order. To put that number in perspective, the government of Rwanda spent an average of $109 per student in 2009, making it easy to understand why some developing countries might be hesitant to splurge on OLPC’s tools..

Lack of Infrastructure: What happens, asked Vota to the audience, when a school located 40km from the nearest town is suddenly burdened with the impossible task of providing power to 300 OLPC laptops? The batteries are notably efficient, but once they run out, the students often have nowhere to turn to charge them. One school in a rural area of a developing country that Vota had visited, for example, had only one low-voltage outlet located in the principle’s office -- hardly enough to power an educational tech revolution.

Additionally, it’s difficult to imagine how any of these  off-the-grid schools are equipped with Internet access (although OLPC laptops do come with wi-fi capability), meaning it’s unlikely that teachers will be using the technology to e-mail assignments to their students.

Implementation Problems: In one African country, Vota and a team assigned to deploying computers in rural and developing regions encountered serious administrative problems accessing schools, since no central records were kept of what schools were where, or how many students attended which schools. “One ministry [of education],” to paraphrase Vota, “asked us to go and deploy the laptops, then share our data [on school counts and enrollment] with them!” Such administrative problems present a serious the deployment of technology like OLPC’s.

Vota also mentioned how difficult it is to find trained technicians, familiar with local infrastructure and technology, who can install and maintain the ICTs -- especially considering how easily components like the keyboard membrane and mousepad break down. Finally, he explained how, after receiving a shipment of OLPC laptops, one schoolmaster was told that he would be help personally responsible for any losses or damages. Petrified of damaging any devices, the laptops sat in his office, untouched and unimplemented for months.

Lack of Usage: Argued Vota last week, the OLPC program suffers from a lack of on-the-ground logistical factors that ultimately suffocate its laptops’ effect on education. First, he pointed out how, after the deployment of nearly half a million laptops to Peru’s poorest schoolchildren, most kids never even brought the devices home. In Peru’s roll-out, children were held responsible for reimbursing the school for any damages, many of which could easily occur during long treks or drives in mountainous terrain. Parents of these kids soon asked their children use the laptops as little as possible, rather than risking losing an entire year’s salary paying for broken devices.

Writing in 2010, one OLPC intern also identified the problem of literacy. “A large majority of the kids have no idea where keys are located and sometimes don’t even know the letters,” he writes, pointing out that keyboard are strictly English, meaning laptops in Peru say “erase” instead of “borrar,” which would make using the device much easier.

To emphasize how much OLPC misses the mark in some cases, Vota also told us that, despite the impressive slew of the laptop’s features, (such as cameras and multimedia programs), the vast majority of teachers he’s met over the years only care about one program: PowerPoint. His evidence is admittedly only anecdotal, but Vota suspects that all the attractive talk about multimedia or interactivity in the classroom enabled by OLPC’s laptops doesn’t really shape up in the classroom, as teachers stick with old techniques using a modern medium.

Lack of Empirical Evidence: Indeed, students don’t really use the laptops for much at all, and most studies actually indicate that OLPC laptops have little, no, or even adverse effects on student’s learning. Check out Miller-McCune journalist Timothy Ogden’s summary of the empirical case against giving laptops to students in the developing world -- it’s a good read and presents some interesting arguments. Of greater concern is that most of OLPC’s evidence of success is based on anecdotal evidence; only recently has a large-scale empirical study been initiated.

Lessons Learned: Vota’s message was clear, and it was one worth sharing. As is often the case, it’s easy to view technology like OLPC’s laptops as a sexy, straightforward answer to the crisis of education in many developing regions. Instead, it must be viewed simply as a tool to supplement education. It’s not enough to throw shiny toys at the developing world’s youth; myriad related factors come in to play, requiring an intimate knowledge of the specific region before ICTs can be rolled out.

This isn’t to say that injecting 21st-century in the developing world isn’t the right answer. In fact, there are several, more practical technological alternatives to OLPC that stand to drastically improve education in the developing world: Mobile phone communication and interactive radio instruction (IRI), both of which take advantage of a much stronger ICT network already in existence. That’s where the second part of this series comes into play -- check back soon for a look at how mobile and radio technologies stand to transform the rural classroom.